I’m way overdue for a post myself, and so here’s a quick one to help out folks (since I saw a request about this today).
When you’re stocking a home bar from scratch, some folks will immediately think “I need one of everything”.
And hey, if you have the budget for it, go for it! It’s not like (most) liquor goes bad (though it may lose some flavor). But other ingredients do go bad, and you might not have an unlimited budget.
As I’ve been told, and I agree with completely, the best way is to buy the ingredients you need for your favorite drink. For instance, if you want to make negronis at home, you’d buy Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth. Then, maybe look for related drinks – oh, hey, if I add in rye, I can do rye Manhattans and Old Pals. It’s all up to what you like.
From that, I’ll give some ideas of what I’d look for in liquors, prices based on Virginia ABC unless otherwise marked. (For instance, you can get most of these cheaper in DC, but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically cheaper – you have to go to the right places, etc. etc.)
Bourbon – For a mixing bourbon, I like to go with Four Roses yellow label ($18.99). The Four Roses higher end bourbons are also good deals (Small batch, $37.99, Single Barrel $41.99). For one with more spice, I go Bulleit ($32.99).
Rye – For mixing and shots, I tend to stick to Old Overholt ($21.99) though some like the extra punch of Rittenhouse 100 (a few bucks more, evidently not in VA anymore) – but it seems to have changed recipes recently maybe. Higher end, the High West Rendezvous ($69.99) is nice, as is their other stuff. I’d also look at the E.H. Taylor or Russell’s Reserve (both $59.99), or if you want something local, the Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye 92 proof ($52.79).
Gin – In my opinion, you need two kinds of gin: a London dry, and Plymouth. The former can easily be done by a number of brands, typically around $20, such as Bombay (*not* Sapphire!), Beefeater (my fave for martinis), Tanqueray, etc. The latter is one brand, Plymouth ($39.99), and has a lighter taste. Past there, you really run into “what are your preferences” as not many folks drink gin neat. A lot of folks like Hendriks for the cucumber/etc. taste ($39.99) and it makes a nice change in gin and tonics or in a collins. I also like Aviation ($25.99). Bols Genever ($41.99) is an older form of gin that’s quite good, and Hayman’s Royal Dock Navy Strength (not available in Virginia, ~$38).
Vodka – Ugh, this topic can be contentious. I tend to stick with Tito’s ($21.99) as a go-to. Other than that, ¯_(?)_/¯
Brandy – Remember this covers a ton of subkinds, including cognac, armagnac, calvados, etc. I tend to have some Hennessy VS ($36.99) around or something of equivalent for mixing or sipping, but I’m not hugely knowledgeable on them. (I will try to edit this later to reflect what I might have at home).
Scotch – I like Black Bottle ($27.29) for mixing. Beyond that you’re hitting a HUGE different field, so I’d hit up Jack Rose Dining Saloon or some other good whiskey bars for advice.
Bitters – A bottle of Peychauds ($4.89), Angostura (~$10 in grocery stores or the District), and Regans Orange (~$10, I think).
Other liqueurs – These will vary by what you make. If you’re not making sidecars or margaritas do you really need that curacao/Cointreau? Bitter liqueurs can be a whole lecture on their own. Fernet Branca ($28.99) is quite popular with many cocktail geeks.
Vermouth – I tend to go with the Dolin brand (~$12 in the District), especially if you can get the 375s (as vermouth is made from wine, and needs to be refrigerated and can go “off”). Carpano Antica sweet ($35.99) is popular and good.